Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Level Climate Science

Melanie Phillips once claimed that she had, in the old Irving Kristol formulation, been “mugged by reality”. I think she sustained a head injury during the attack. She doesn’t, in any case, seem to be able to face her attacker. I wouldn’t normally write about her bizarre, frothing persona: surely most people, even Daily Mail readers, would view her as a slightly crude parody, as Steven Poole insists she is. But now her Spectator incarnation refuses to publish my comments, and I can’t let even a satiric invention get away with that.

It begins with her enthusiasm for David Bellamy. A while ago he jumped, beard first, into the global warming debate, and immediately made an idiot of himself. In 2004 he wrote a Daily Mail article with the standard discredited points – that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but a fertilizer, that the real greenhouse gas is water vapour, etc. He even touted the absurd “Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine” petition, “signed by over 18,000 scientists”, including, as George Monbiot pointed out, “Ginger Spice and the cast of MASH”. In an exchange with Monbiot, Bellamy's complete lack of knowledge of global warming science became evident. For instance, to make his case on glaciers he had apparently relied on non-existent papers in prestigious journals, existent papers in LaRouchite journals, and, ultimately, his inability to operate a computer keyboard. He then wisely wrote to the Sunday Times announcing that he would “draw back” from this subject of which he knew nothing.

Sadly it didn’t last, and this week he was back with another self-pitying, “heretical” article informing Times readers that “the self-proclaimed consensus among scientists has detached itself from the questioning rigours of hard science”. Truth-tellers like Bellamy are victims of “McCarthyism, witch-hunts and all”. He has switched to a slightly different selection of debating points, but they are familiar enough. Ah, but the climate is cyclical anyway. And didn’t the Romans grow grapes in England? Oh, and Greenland used to be green (cue etymologically dubious assertion). On the strength of these claims we can obviously discard those “complex and often unreliable computer models” with their physics and their matching hindcasting. His points have all been dealt with, even in language a soil-fondling botanist should understand, but Bellamy has simply ignored these responses.

Naturally such a performance did not escape Mel P, forever casting around for abject stupidity to endorse. The Bellamy effusion is “glorious”. “Thank goodness” for him. He “rips into the global warming scam with unrivalled brio”. “Over and over again,” she reports, “he brings forward elementary facts which directly contradict or fatally undermine the misleading claims and sometimes totally bent predictions of man-made global warming catastrophe which masquerade as ‘research’.” So there. Even if a scientific consensus existed “it would prove nothing except the unlimited capacity of people to fall into line when their livelihoods are at stake”:

The ‘scientific consensus’ has been proved wrong over and over again; it was not long ago that it was proclaiming with the same certainty that the planet was about to freeze to extinction.

It is perhaps interesting to ponder Melanie Phillips’s understanding of the scientific method. Because the scientific consensus has been wrong in the past, no scientific consensus can “prove” anything except scientists’ self-interest. It is of course true science cannot absolutely prove anything. But if her statement has any informational content beyond this, it apparently suggests that all scientific consensus – indeed science itself – is meaningless. So what if the scientific consensus promotes certain views about gravity? The consensus has been wrong many times. And scientists do get grants for studying gravity: they’re just promoting their own interests. Who can trust these “complex” models of general relativity when all this talk of curved space-time is obvious nonsense to the ordinary decent folk in the street? (This attitude is held, of course, by the arch defender of truth from filthy pinko relativism.)

There is another scientific issue on which Mel P has historically believed herself to be almost uniquely correct, and it’s instructive because at no point did she ever acknowledge that her brave challenge to the consensus was wrong. It is of course the MMR vaccine. Her last article on the subject was titled “MMR: the façade cracks” – and yet since February 2006, and in spite of Andrew Wakefield coming before the GMC on a disciplinary hearing, she has found nothing at all to say. She no longer cares, it seems, about those poor children developing autism. She no longer cares about Wakefield having his reputation “systematically trashed” as part of a “witch-hunt”. No other conclusion is possible unless, of course, she changed her view on the risks of the vaccine. But surely if she’d changed her view this defender of objective truth would at least have admitted she was wrong? She had, after all, helped encourage dangerously low levels of resistance to serious diseases. But no – we heard nothing. Perhaps the final sign that evidence for anthropogenic global warming is irrefutable, even by the willfully ignorant, will be complete silence from Mel P, after a final tantrum where she insists she was right all along.

Anyhow, I originally started this because I wanted to talk about Mel’s attitude towards education (it’s hard to focus on any one part of her continent-straddling lunacy). Some of what she says has some kind of internal logic. One could, for instance, believe her pronouncements on Israel/Palestine if unable to access the empirical facts. But I cannot fathom how she manages to so blithely, and so loudly, hold logically contradictory positions simultaneously. On the one hand, regarding climate change, she believes that “[w]hat matters is not that very grand people with lots of letters after their names all agree to a proposition, but whether that proposition is actually true”. She holds that, without any relevant qualifications, she is in a position to pronounce on global warming by employing "the judgment of ordinary people". And yet yesterday she moaned that the “gold standard” A Level will be abolished, the “education system [has] imploded”, etc.

Equipped with only an English degree, Melanie Phillips has out-thought thousands of highly qualified scientists and doctors, many with those magnificent A Levels of yore. Some of them, I hear, even have degrees. The Melanie Phillips example surely proves we should at the least scrap science and maths A Levels, even if we have to ramp up numbers of English students to replace them. But as far as I can tell it is also an argument against any qualifications at all. Melanie Phillips should welcome the destruction of A Levels, for it will lead to the replacement of study and training with “the judgment of ordinary people”. And how else will we defeat the worldwide global warming conspiracy?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cohen and Said (and, oh joy, Kamm)

You've probably seen that there's been a renewed fuss about Nick Cohen's book, What's Left?, occasioned by Johann Hari's review of it in Dissent. Cohen produced a response, to which Hari responded. While some of their discussion was about "root causes", a surprising amount of it was a largely irrelevant argument about Nick Cohen's alleged Orwellian aspirations.

Oliver Kamm's pompous, voluminous and tedious spew on the subject similarly avoided the larger issues, consisting instead of a self-parodic English lesson and absurd hair-splitting about imperceptible shades of neo-conservative opinion. Some of his bizarre claims were dealt with by Tim Holmes here, although Kamm has continued to tie himself in knots since. The "intellectual sledgehammer" apparently believes that the presence of Elliott Abrams in the Reagan administration demonstrated a new found zeal for democracy. The fact that Abrams was notoriously involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the US sold arms to the Iranian theocracy in order to fund attacks on the elected government of Nicaragua is irrelevant... somehow. Abrams's enthusiasm for the human rights-challenged regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala can also be ignored when assessing whether Abrams's appearance marked a shift from Jeane Kirkpatrick's advocacy of "working with authoritarian regimes".

Not, you understand, that Abrams is someone whom Kamm anoints as "a neoconservative of the school I identify as consistent with the Left's ideals". No. But Abrams "marked a turn in policy" in that he opposed Kirkpatrick on Chile by apparently supporting "democratic political movements" there. (Quite what Kamm means by "democratic political movements" in Chile is unclear, given his peculiar asseveration in 2001 that "any democrat" would be "glad" that the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, had been deposed in a coup.) And that proves neo-conservatism is a "variegated phenomenon", which means Kamm isn't a supporter of all neo-conservatism, even if he did write that book subtitled "The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy". Indeed, he isn't a supporter at all, but merely keen to appropriate the label "for [his] own uses". Utterly compelling, as Stephen Pollard says.

Anyhow, upon reading Nick Cohen's retort to Hari, my first thought was of the hypocrisy it displayed. Readers of Hari's review, Cohen said, "were not given an honest account" of his book. Hari "from almost the first paragraph of his piece in your last issue, misleads your readers", he told Dissent. After the Orwell talk, Hari "goes on to misrepresent my book", Cohen said. (Strangely, given the strength of criticism levelled by Cohen, Hari threatened the Harry's Place blog with legal action if they didn't remove apparently related accusations published there. There are few mentions of internet libel law that don't prompt Oliver Kamm to trumpet his glorious victory in that arena. He has already twice promised breathless readers there's more to come.)

Regardless of the accuracy of Hari's review, the accusations Cohen levelled at it could be applied to his own book. The most obvious case was surely his misrepresentation of Edward Said's views of the 9/11 attackers. The book suggests that Said failed to condemn the hijackers:
"Said couldn't manage a word of condemnation of the ideology and methods of the suicide bombers" (p 274)
As I pointed out, Said had a piece in Cohen's own paper with exactly such a condemnation. At the time I wrote to Cohen about it, but received no reply. Trying again recently elicited a reply.

The defence is apparently that Cohen was talking specifically about the LRB roundtable piece mentioned above the quoted remark, not Said's output in general. I don't believe this is a reasonable defence. As I pointed out:
  1. In the LRB piece Said called the attacks "horrible deeds". That would appear to be "a word of condemnation" of at least the methods of the suicide bombers.
  2. The comments in the book about Said's silence are not unambiguously confined to the LRB roundtable. For the book's characterisation of Said's views to have value, a reasonable assumption would be that it provided a fair summary of Said's output at that time, not just what he wrote in a particular issue of a magazine.
  3. An account of intellectuals' reactions to the attacks couldn't be deemed honest if, when criticising one of those intellectuals for what they didn't say, it tacitly restricted its scope to a single issue of the LRB and its unrepresentative content. What's Left? drew attention to what Said supposedly didn't say in the LRB while ignoring what he certainly did say earlier in the Observer.
While it might be more fun to lay into Cohen's hypocrisy, I'm surprised and happy to say he now admits the description in What's Left? is misleading, and will be correcting it in the next edition. In this he stands in contrast to Oliver Kamm, who in my experience simply ignores criticism that he can't at least purport to answer in his favour. Of course, there remain the numerous other problems with What's Left?, documented here and elsewhere.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Conclusively Vindicated

Just in case anyone forgot, the Iraq War was not just about bringing democracy to Iraq: it was going to transform the whole Middle East. Oliver Kamm (we can't avoid him, I'm afraid) supplied the standard laundry list of achievements in his rambling Anti-Totalitarianism (p 67). It was, in Fouad Ajami's words, an "Autumn of the Autocrats":
Quite suddenly, in the spring of 2005, demand for political reform coalesced in a part of the world so far resistant to constitutional democracy.

Despite intimidation and murderous incursions by groups inaptly dignified by media commentators with the term 'insurgents', nine million Iraqis voted in the country's first post-Baathist election in January 2005. Protests in Lebanon led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year occupation. Elections in May registered a decisive rejection of Syrian influence. Saudi Arabia conceded municipal elections (though with an all-male franchise). Egypt laid plans for competitive presidential elections.
Yasser Arafat even obliged the Americans by dying, as he did so "precipitat[ing] a warming of relations between the Palestinians and Israel". "The prospects for a negotiated territorial accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians... suddenly looked brighter than at any time since the Oslo Accord." (p 68)

The reality hardly needs pointing out. The Iraqi government is not in control of most of the country, regardless of how many people voted. Lebanon's democratic flowering was promptly trampled by Israel, and the country now stands on the edge of civil war. Saudi Arabia's municipal elections, while a cosmetic step forward for a country without even pretence of democracy, involved no transfer of power from the ruling family. Egypt's "competitive" presidential election was won by the 24-year incumbent, the competition only between carefully selected candidates, amid boycotts and various electoral violations. Needless to say, a new Oslo moment did not dawn for the Palestinians (not that Oslo should serve as a model for anything).

But for real nostalgia let's turn to what Hitchens had to say exactly two years ago, in a cosy chat with Andrew Marr. His prognostications were approvingly quoted by Kamm at the head of his "Regime Change" chapter:
I think Iraq will be remarkable. We're going to live to see great things. We already have Lebanon. We're about to, I think, in Egypt, with the reopening of the Egyptian democracy. The Baath party in Syria, in my judgement, will not be there in two years' time. And there will be extraordinary, are already extraordinary, developments in Iran, which I have just come back from. And so the essential point of the Blair-Bush policy, which is to change the balance of power in the Middle East — that has already been conclusively vindicated."

BBC Radio 4, Start the Week, 30th May 2005.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It's a polemic, don't you know

Last month Norman Geras was baffled, as I suspect he often is, by a mysterious new phenomenon. “When the Euston Manifesto was published in April last year,” he said, “something strange happened.” Apparently people mistook it for some kind of pro-war document, even though “[a] paragraph of the manifesto had clearly stated that there were both supporters and opponents of the Iraq war within the group that had produced the document.” They had, in other words, not taken its promoters’ claims at face value – a quite unacceptable practice. Instead they used a “clever-clever” evaluation of its content to show that it was indeed pro-war. Geras utilized a powerful Geoffrey Howe-style cricket analogy to demolish this “nincompoop” approach.

The same unfortunate tendency greeted Cohen’s book. For instance, Stan Crooke of Workers’ Liberty is quite sure that “What’s Left? is not ‘essentially’ about the Iraq war.” We know this because Cohen “spells out what it is about” in the introduction:

“What follows is a critical history of how the symptoms of the malaise [of liberal-minded people making excuses for a totalitarian right] began in obscure groups of Marxists and post-modern theorists; how the sickness manifested itself in the failure to confront genocide in the Middle East and Europe until it grew into the raging fever of our day.”

So there we have it: despite the mention of “genocide in the Middle East” in Crooke’s own quotation from the book, despite the straining efforts to relate Virginia Woolf to Saddam Hussein, even though Iraq was apparently what convinced Cohen the Left were soft on fascism, his book isn’t essentially about the Iraq War. It just mentions it more than anything else. In fact I pointed out that Cohen “invokes Iraq throughout”, but that didn’t make the cut for Crooke’s piece. When quoting me he decided instead to insert sentences from thousands of words later, without an ellipsis, producing a paragraph that appears nowhere in my review.

But let’s turn to Oliver Kamm dealing with another false charge. Apparently, What’s Left? “is not centrally about a pro-totalitarian and anti-American fringe”, even though Kamm is keen to point up “memorable vignettes” of Gerry Healy et al. Geras agrees, in as far as he believes the book “may also be about you”, the presumed non-fringe leftist. He believes “Nick Cohen’s target is a real one wider than the SWP.” Oddly for a book not really about Iraq, the only divisive issue Geras felt worth mentioning was Iraq. He views “the intense hostility there has been, way beyond that organization [the SWP], towards the pro-war left” as confirmation of the Left’s general guilt. So objecting to being tagged as a Galloway clone is now confirmation that you are a Galloway clone – another masterstroke from the professor.

According to Kamm, Gerry Healy, LM magazine, Stalinist fellow travelling, etc. are not “isolated cases confined to an ideological extreme”. To believe otherwise is to “miss Cohen's thesis”. In my review I mentioned the inadequately explained principle of “fringe magnification”, whereby “trends” are identified via the activities of the “fringe”, which “magnify” them. No explanation was advanced for why or how Gerry Healy was a magnified version of the “liberal-left” – indeed, Cohen was explicit that his Iraq policy was unique – but this is as close as Cohen came to a “thesis”.

Kamm opts for another piece of even flimsier hand-waving:

“In the last century, material betterment and the steady diminution of discrimination against blacks, women and homosexuals have advanced progressive goals. Much of the left has yet to come to terms with this achievement. At the extreme, some who were once thought of as being on the left have adopted the language and outlook of the right.”

In some wholly unexplained way, then, the Left’s success on social policy led to them becoming right-wing. Because they had achieved gay and women’s rights they decided to adopt the views of Muslims who were against these things. How do we know this occurred? Neither Cohen nor Kamm says. Kamm simply skips to the oracular conclusion that “[t]he alliance of Islamists and Leninists that makes up the Respect coalition is not a dalliance born of opportunism”, even though the only evidence, as opposed to speculation, in Cohen’s book suggests the exact opposite. But even if one accepted his unsupported contention, it would not explain how these “Leninists” relate to the anti-war Left in general. None of Cohen’s defenders has filled this gap.

Paul Anderson, whom Cohen commends for dealing with the “myopia” of his critics, has a marginally different take. To him What’s Left? is

“a polemic by a democratic leftist who watched in mounting frustration and disbelief as the democratic left around him screwed up by tolerating the intolerable and excusing the inexcusable.”

Anderson bemoans the Left “banging on about whether invading Iraq was right, oblivious to the actual situation in Iraq.” This is a precise description of what Cohen does in his book. He does not, as I pointed out, mention the state of affairs in Iraq. Instead he laments the millions who marched “against the overthrow of a fascist regime” and complains of the “legalistic” stance among anti-war left-wingers denying his view “a degree of legitimacy”. This sort of talk is surely what the Euston Manifesto dismisses as “picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention”. But then, pro-war leftists are allowed to do that.

Similarly, pro-war leftists are allowed to ally with reactionaries, whereas their opponents are not. Thus Anderson decries the “at best moronic” acquiescence in Galloway et al. “appointing themselves as the leadership of the anti-war movement in 2002-03”. He steps back, as Cohen did, from spelling out whether joining Stop the War Coalition marches was moronic or worse. Why, if that is what he means? What did he expect those against the war to do? Suddenly the straight-talking stops.

Simultaneous with this argument-dodging has been the almost complete silence on the obvious smears and logical chasms that suggest Cohen delegated his thinking to a handful of unimpressive books and blogs. Anderson’s answer to all this? It doesn’t “pretend to be a piece of cutting-edge original research or scholarship”. Who cares if it’s a feeble recycling job? Who cares if it makes false claims? It’s a polemic, don’t you know.

(In the world of polemics, we learn, “a little exaggeration and a little underplaying are essential tools of the trade”. So forget the “historical truth” promoted by the Euston Manifesto, which Anderson signed. It doesn’t apply to a polemic in a good cause.)

I could return to Stan Crooke, but most of what he says regarding my review rests on the strange idea that I’m responsible for what the SWP says (it’s an organization with which I’m not associated except in Crooke’s head). More relevant is the point, still standing after Cohen’s various apologists’ efforts, that the reason people have not engaged with Cohen’s “thesis” or “arguments” is that these barely exist. No clear argument for the ideological connection between the SWP and the MAB and the mass of anti-war marchers has been made. To the extent that he presents a “thesis”, it is based on innuendo and revealed wisdom. In sum, however much Cohen likes talking about George Galloway’s leotard, he has yet to explain why we should see the future of the Left there.

For more on Cohen’s book, and proof that my review was far from exhaustive in the fatuities it covered, I recommend Tim Holmes’s outstanding, extensively researched review.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What's Left of Cohen

The praise Cohen has garnered for his new book is predictable enough – what else would The Spectator say? However, even the unimpressed reviewers don’t come close to cataloguing the full range of factual mistakes, lazy research and muddled arguments. Perhaps the monthlies will do a better job, although I doubt it. Anyhow, in the absence of anything better, here is my review.

For all Cohen’s claims to have diagnosed a general disease among the Left (or “liberals” as he bafflingly calls them), What’s Left? is essentially about the Iraq War. It’s about how Cohen was right to support it, and how his left-wing opponents were wrong, in various ways. He invokes Iraq throughout. That’s not to say he doesn’t cover other things: he suggests opposition to the invasion was the terminus of various other horrors, some of them stretching back well before the Second World War. The problem is that many of these have no obvious relation to the anti-war marchers, and those are the people whom Cohen says so disillusioned him with the Left. Anyone seeking to understand why Cohen’s support for the Bush Doctrine was so unimpeachable must fight through a tangle of historical and social theorizing relating only, on the face of it, to a tiny part of the anti-war movement.

Strangest of all is the chapter focused on Gerry Healy, a cultish, unpleasant leader of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which took Iraqi and Libyan money in return for favourable propaganda. The relevance to today’s Left? Apparently none, because “the WRP’s support for Baathism was a one-off, which no other left-wing group imitated” (p 68).

Not much easier to understand is the inclusion of chapters on post-modernism, “Tories Against the War” (in Bosnia) and conspiracy theories. Post-modernism, for Cohen, marks a denial of objective reality, a retreat from genuine political action to pseudo-radical verbalizing. “The story of how political defeat took the radical Sixties left into the wilderness of post-modernism has been told many times,” he announces (p 106). And he’s right: the bulk of his choice absurdities appeared in either Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World or a blog called Butterflies and Wheels. Both receive a mention as sources, but it’s hard to see his research as better than lazy. Did he even read Afzar Hussain’s review, about which he says so much? Everything he quotes appears on Butterflies and Wheels, including the missing italics (as Aaronovitch Watch pointed out).

By contrast, we can be sure he read Francis Wheen’s book. Cohen’s accounts of the Sokal hoax and Luce Irigaray’s claims regarding relativity both supply no details beyond it. His quote from Foucault regarding the Iranian revolution is also given there. As is his quotation of Michael Moore. In a similar way, much of what Cohen has to say on 1930s appeasement, in particular on pacifist Labour leader George Lansbury, bears a haunting similarity to Oliver Kamm’s Anti-Totalitarianism. The impression of second-hand scholarship is inescapable by the time one finds Cohen retailing an account of collaborationist French Socialists from Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism.


Like so many muscular liberals before him, Cohen feels obliged to attack Noam Chomsky. Where does he turn for material? Why, Francis Wheen and Oliver Kamm of course (maybe Terror and Liberalism wasn’t handy when he wrote this section). And what about an introductory quotation, ideally bespeaking of literary breadth? Well, one suspects he consulted Christopher Hitchens’s 1985 essay defending Chomsky, The Chorus and Cassandra. At least, he probably read the introductory paragraph and quotation, which are nearly identical – the rest seems to have passed him by.

Two of his mouldering allegations – regarding Faurisson and the Khmer Rouge – were dealt with twenty years ago, in Hitchens’s essay, although Oliver Kamm has given them a regular outing in recent years, and Wheen included the second in his book. It is hard to see what Cohen believes he is adding. It is also hard to know why he felt able to so blithely ignore Hitchens’s case for the defence.

A third accusation is not new either. It was aired first by Oliver Kamm, who was at the time in contact with Cohen about related material. Back then, Cohen supplied Kamm with a selection of media cuttings that supposedly showed Chomsky had misrepresented an expert witness, Philip Knightley, speaking at the LM vs. ITN libel trial about a photograph of the Trnopolje camp. Kamm, and one assumes Cohen, have since been made aware that Chomsky did not in fact substantively misrepresent Knightley. Kamm had either not read, or had simply ignored, what Knightley had said at the trial. Nevertheless, he refused to correct what he’d written. (Kamm is credited, hilariously in the circumstances, with “clear[ing] away many misconceptions” and “advice on the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts”.)

The absence of the Knightley claim in Cohen’s book is probably the closest we’ll come to an admission of error from the Kamm-Cohen party. But that does not stop Cohen mentioning the camp, or the interview in which Kamm said Chomsky had been so dishonest. He has all the background material; it’s just that the case is now reduced to malign insinuation. Cohen leaves the implication hanging in the air that Chomsky was denying the proven reality of the Trnopolje photograph, even though he doesn’t dispute Knightley’s testimony, or mention what the trial judge said on the matter. Rather, he appeals to the authority of a geography professor, David Campbell, to show that LM “didn’t fight” because it had “no honest evidence”. It is certainly true that ITN won their case against LM, and the Guardian journalist Ed Vulliamy duly celebrated this apparent vindication of his reporting, but anyone acquainted with Britain’s libel laws would know the connection was weak at best.

As a side note, one might consider Cohen et al.’s fitful commitment to free speech. Cohen, for instance, avers that “[f]reedom of speech includes the freedom to lie and defame” (p 164). But he has nothing to say on LM’s lack of freedom to say what they thought about Trnopolje. Kamm (“a near-absolutist on matters of free speech”) went as far as approvingly quoting Vulliamy saying “history… is thankfully built not upon public relations or melodrama but upon truth; if necessary, truth established by law”. One wonders, as Cohen thunders about Said Qutb or Michael Aflaq’s hatred of free society, just where he really stands.

And so it goes on. Chomsky went on about East Timor when a Western-backed Indonesian government was massacring the inhabitants. So Cohen complains that Chomsky “had nothing to say to the East Timorese on what they should do after Australian and British troops infuriated Osama bin Laden by ending the terror in 1999” (p 161). Was he obliged to send a congratulatory telegram? Hail the West for stepping in 24 years after the slaughter began? For it isn’t as if Chomsky had nothing to say about East Timor after the intervention. A cursory Internet search reveals, among other things, an article titled “East Timor Is Not Yesterday's Story”, written after INTERFET arrived. But then, at times Cohen’s approach to facts is hardly different from what he detests in post-modern theorists.

If reality trumped rhetoric he wouldn’t malignantly distort the case of the Guardian’s October 31st 2005 interview with Chomsky, conducted by Emma Brockes. The interview alleged, among other things, that Chomsky liked to put the word “massacre” in quotation marks when talking of Srebrenica, as if to say there had been no massacre. He hadn’t done this, which the Guardian Readers’ Editor, Ian Mayes, recognised. A correction was printed and the interview was withdrawn from the Guardian website.

For post-modernist Cohen, unanchored to facts, the interview became a “piece on leftist denial of crimes against humanity” (p 179). It didn’t damagingly misrepresent what Chomsky had said; it was just “poorly subbed”. A flood of “[j]ournalists, survivors of the camps, UN workers in the Balkans and Britain’s foremost academic authorities were appalled” and apparently urged Mayes to reconsider, but he cruelly “slapped down the survivors and their allies” by recognising Chomsky’s right not to be misrepresented. Oddly, the only complainants Mayes thought worthy of mention in his piece on the correction, among all those UN workers and academics, were Oliver Kamm, Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch. The substance of their complaint? Hammer of post-modernism Wheen, upholder of objective truth Kamm, both put their names to a letter that didn’t dispute that Chomsky had not said what Brockes said he’d said; it just lamely concluded she was “certainly entitled” to her “interpretation”.

Why might Mayes have acted so unfeelingly towards Emma Brockes’s “interpretative validity”? Ah, that would be down, not to the substance of the complaint – that doesn’t interest Cohen – but Mayes’s middle class orthodoxy. It’s all tied up with Virginia Woolf and Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells and eugenics and bien pensant Bloomsbury dinner parties, you see. For here we reach the title page of the “What Do We Do Now?” chapter. Give up, would be my answer to any reader lucky enough not to have already wasted their time on that thirty-three page collage of pseudo-populist clichés.

Having alerted us to the iniquitous snobbery of the Bloomsbury set (p 192), having treated us to not “wholly wrong” Daily Mail attitudes on the social collapse betokened by vanishing work ethics and “common decency” (p 197), having implied but never said that maybe mothers should stay at home after all (p 200), he comes out and says, “the intellectuals weren’t interested in the working class” (p 208). Cohen isn’t an intellectual, of course, just as Melanie Phillips isn’t part of the hated “elite” – it just looks that way. But if he were, one might ask just how much interest he has in the working class. He’s fascinated by certain unionised workers in Iraq and Iran being tyrannised by George Bush’s enemies. But when did he, for instance, ever mention the Gate Gourmet dispute in the UK? As far as I can tell, he did so once – offhandedly comparing their plight favourably to impoverished lawyers.

It’s the kind of chapter that one can read, and re-read, and yet never understand what it says or why it was written. The stumbling efforts to link it to Iraq are reminiscent of the last minutes of a drunken anecdote from someone who’s trying to remember the punch-line. For instance, Cohen apparently suggests liberals opposed the war because some Virginia Woolf-like contempt for the “common man” meant they didn’t care if Saddam tortured him (p 193-194). And that in turn is because these Balsamic-fixated Bloomsbury ponces wrinkle their noses at East End council estate residents who spend their days picking up bankers’ sandwiches in Canary Wharf – a job forced on them when their matriarchal coping systems were atomised by the welfare state and interfering social workers (p 199-200), or Guardianista gay rights programmes, or identity politics (p 196). As a consequence, these disaffected workers voted in Thatcher and Reagan (p 196), further irritating the liberal elites, now itching to revenge themselves by leaving Iraqis under tyranny. Or something. Does it even matter? Even to Cohen?


Cohen’s book is, generally, a combination of elliptical, impenetrable speculation and definite, wrong, claims. The evidence of the latter is endless – I simply can’t include it all – but since Cohen is so persistent on the subject it would be remiss not to consider yet more of his farcical smear campaign against the “far left”. Dull as this may be, the book is duller, believe me.

Cohen quotes Edward Said (LRB, April 2003) on the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor: “Iraq ‘was the one Arab country with the human and natural resources, as well as the infrastructure, to take on Israel's arrogant brutality. That is why Begin bombed Iraq pre-emptively in 1981, supplying a model for the US in its own pre-emptive war.’” (p 76)

Cohen’s interpretation? “Because Said believed Saddam could one day have the men and munitions to take on Israel, the war against him had to be the result of a sinister plot by Jewish puppet masters who pulled the strings of American policy.” (p 77)

Too bad the sentence before the one quoted says “Iraq might once have been a potential challenge to Israel.” Never mind that it follows a paragraph saying, “[T]hat after 12 years of sanctions it [Iraq] is a threat of any kind to any other state is a laughable notion.” For Cohen’s nodding donkey supporters, he’s done enough, even if it does mean ignoring swathes of his source material and instead relying on arbitrary conspiracist aspersions. Said thinks Israel influenced US policy? Oh, that must imply “a sinister plot by Jewish puppet masters” then. (An “excellent” book,” says Kamm. A “mordant and instructive polemic,” says Hitchens.)

At times it seems as if a Cohen pronouncement defines reality for him. It becomes hard to distinguish slack writing from deliberate smear. On the 9/11 hijackers he says:

“[Edward] Said couldn’t manage a word of condemnation of the ideology and the methods of the suicide bombers.” (p 274)

Cohen’s first Observer column after that event appeared alongside one by Edward Said. Said’s piece referred to the “spectacular horror” of “terror missions without political message, senseless destruction.” It spoke of “the genuine sorrow and affliction that so much carnage has so cruelly imposed on so many.” “No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents,” he went on. Their “quick bloody solutions” were “wrapped in lying religious claptrap.” Evidently Cohen doesn’t read his own paper – that or he’s just relying on the inability of a dead man to defend himself.

The Makiya connection is strange, too. For Cohen, Kenan Makiya was “An Iraqi Solzhenitsyn”, who warranted our support, so Said’s “vilification” of him was unconscionable in 2003. In the intervening years, Makiya’s claim that a pacific federal Iraq would emerge from the invasion has been definitively shown to be wrong. Whether or not Makiya’s battle against anti-democratic planning for Iraq was hampered by missing liberal-left support, his speculations about a post-Saddam Iraq were plainly unrealistic. Many of Said’s objections were valid, as is now obvious. Contrary to Makiya’s wish, the US was bound to initiate the invasion with a bombing campaign. Contrary to Makiya’s assertion, there was no evidence that Iraqis were broadly committed to federalism. Makiya’s vision of a “non-Arab” Iraqi state was a mirage.

Given Makiya’s disconnection from the Arab world, and his basic inexperience of Arab politics – both pointed out by Said – why did anybody take his claims so seriously, even in 2003? Presumably because, as Said also suggested, he was saying what the US war party wanted to hear. This has since been confirmed by George Packer’s Assassins Gate, which Cohen himself cites. Far more baffling is that anybody now would defend Makiya’s predictions for Iraq, after all that followed the invasion, and after the publication of Packer’s book. Why does Cohen devote so much space to him when even he admits the “hard-headed” Makiya ludicrously believed that the invaders would be greeted by “sweets and flowers” (p 286)? Why does Cohen still write off Said’s accurate critique as “incontinent abuse” (p 75)?

Perhaps it’s because Cohen’s favourite source, aside from friends’ books and congenial blogs, is his old newspaper columns. As if determined to include all the material from his outdated Said attack piece, Cohen goes on to include the next point, about Harold Pinter. In 2003 he felt Harold Pinter had abandoned the concern shown for the Kurds in his 1988 play Mountain Language, about a people whose language had been banned, just as Kurdish had been banned in Turkey. Pinter “refused to hear the mountain tongue he had once defended” when… well, when Iraqi Kurds, who hadn’t had their language banned, and weren’t culturally persecuted in their autonomous zone, pushed for the invasion. The same point, with the same quotation, is regurgitated in the book, except with Iraqis now also motivating the play. But Cohen does not explain why Pinter’s behaviour is so suspect. Iraqi Kurds in 2003 weren’t in the same position as they were in 1988, or in the same position as Turkish Kurds under government repression. Even given their enthusiasm for the invasion, their voice was hardly the only one within Iraq.


So we have the Chomsky-Said-Pinter axis disgraced. We’ve ridiculed the post-modernists. We’ve talked about the splinter-of-a-splinter group, the Workers Revolutionary Party. We’ve wheeled out the Daily Mail theory of political alienation. Where next? Ah yes, the awfulness of the anti-war marchers.

Since publication, Cohen has insisted that he isn’t simply tarring all protesters with the antics of George Galloway (he devotes a page and a half to Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother). He initially suggests the million marchers were led astray: “They were good people on the whole, who hadn’t thought about the Baath Party.” (p 282)

The masses’ simple-mindedness was their reason for protesting the war, Cohen implies; but their unhealthily jolly protests did not, it would seem, necessarily discredit them:

“The anti-war movement disgraced itself not because it was against the war in Iraq, but because it could not oppose the counter-revolution once the war was over.” (p 288)

If they had counter-posed a protest at their own government – a protest that at least theoretically might have led to a change in policy – with a protest aimed at Islamists and Baathists slaughtering Iraqis and foreign troops then they would have avoided Cohen’s displeasure, or at least his outright contempt. How such a protest would have been anything but pointless, given the killers’ contempt for free speech and democracy documented by Cohen on page 287, is not explained. But somehow, if the poor deluded marchers had taken on Zarqawi with their placards, everything would have been alright.

Or perhaps not; perhaps they had to avoid any association with Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain as well. After all, Cohen sternly reminds us they “had joined marches led by a saluter of a genocidal tyrant” (p 291). “Needs must when the Devil drives”, Cohen says of Makiya’s alliance with the neo-cons (p 85). But the principle doesn’t seem to apply to those against the war – at least not when Cohen has used the remarkable phenomenon of fringe magnification to detect “trends”. “A theme of this book,” he intones on page 294, “is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining.” “[T]he extreme parties magnify trends in wider society,” he goes on. What trend might the SWP be magnifying? “Opportunism and control-freakery”, apparently (p 295). The mechanism isn’t clear, but it probably involves yuppie sandwiches.

Is the Left generally keen to endorse Islamism? If so, Cohen provides only counter-evidence. The story goes that the Left, tired of their faltering grasp on the masses, seized on Islamist antipathy towards America and globalisation to reinvigorate the march toward revolution. Cohen cites a 1994 article in the International Socialism Journal suggesting the SWP were hoping to win young Islamists to “a different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective”. This “daydream”, we are told, might not be what they were really after. Perhaps, speculates Cohen, they “just wanted to ally with the real threat to the established order.” (p 309) Well, perhaps not, if he means they wanted to promote Islamist ideology. What Cohen cites, after all, points in the opposite direction – but there he goes again with his textual deconstruction.

In any case, all the talk of the “communalist” SWP and George Galloway was, one finds in Cohen’s hysterically-named chapter, “The Liberals Go Beserk”, not the worst stain on the Left’s credibility. Even if the dumb marchers hadn’t tolerated SWP/MAB fanatics in their midst, Cohen wouldn’t have been satisfied. “[L]iberals,” he announces, “were in danger of becoming ridiculous.” (p 312) This danger arose primarily from campaigners’ “legalistic” approach to the Iraq War.

The threat was raised in Robert Kagan’s paean to American militarism, Paradise and Power, which Cohen approvingly quotes. Wimpish European liberals had no credible force of their own, but they could hurt America by denying its military adventurism their imprimatur. This they did, apparently, by declaring the Iraq war was “illegal”. The Iraq war’s illegality was not a fact of international law, endorsed by the majority of qualified lawyers, but a construct from a “postmodern” Europe cowering hypocritically under the American umbrella (p 316). Horrifyingly, this “play[ing] at judges and lawyers” might, in Kagan’s words, “become debilitating and perhaps even paralyzing”. Cohen is clear that things are worse even than this, reaching a conclusion perhaps “too scandalous” for Kagan’s imagination. The scarcely imaginable harvest from “pretending that it was illegal to overthrow a genocidal regime”? “The insurgents were able to use the liberal’s slogans.” (p 317) He has an image of suicide bombers crashing through the streets of Baghdad, screaming, “it’s illegal!” No really, he does.

While it wasn’t a “disgrace” to oppose the war, one couldn’t go as far as denying the war had “a degree of legitimacy” (p 315). That was, in the White House formulation that Cohen echoes, giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy (in his Chomsky essay, Hitchens refers to “the old Stalinist ‘aid and comfort’ ruse”, but one assumes he’s discarded that view). Cohen’s analysis has him pushing aside the bruschetta sissies and stepping outside: “[T]he mainstream European left didn’t want to participate in a war to overthrow Saddam themselves, as was their right, but they also wanted to deny the legitimacy of others who were prepared to fight.” This was apparently not their right. The thought that the Left opposed the war because they viewed it as illegitimate and dangerous is seemingly beyond even the imagination of Cohen. They had to be motivated by cowardice.

After all the filler and flimflam, one finally discovers what actually seems to be Cohen’s main point. It’s the simple idea that technocratic fault-finding applied to Western wars is acceptable, while fundamental criticism isn’t. Chomsky wrote about this notion among liberals long ago in American Power and the New Mandarins, which Cohen cites. Of course, whether he read it, or understood it, is another matter.

Aside from this, there is only the related accusation of anti-American bad faith. For instance, Cohen complains of the Left’s fixation on Israel, at their unwillingness to extend the same criticism to other regimes. But, as elsewhere when lamenting the lack of anti-Saddam banners at the anti-war marches, and in his attacks on Chomsky’s selective criticism, he misses the obvious point: people are likely to, and indeed have a greater obligation to, criticise their own regime and its allies. Not only do they bear some responsibility for their actions, but they have some chance of changing them. Cohen could of course criticise this argument, but he doesn’t even acknowledge it.

Underlying all he says on the Iraq War is a basic refusal to address anything happening there beyond what involves his favoured pro-occupation trade unionists (he ignores anti-occupation trade unionists). He rants that millions marched against the “overthrow of a fascist regime” (p 280), but he never suggests they marched against 600000 deaths. In fact he contrives to suggest those horrors are partly the fault of those who opposed ever setting them in train, because they allegedly refused “solidarity” to people in Iraq. He accepts the standard narrative that the WMD intelligence was flawed, that the Bush administration made “mistakes”, but was Cohen wrong on anything? We hear nothing of it. Someone unacquainted with the Iraq War would come away with no idea of what has happened there in the last four years. This crashing silence is the only way Cohen can pursue what is on the face of it an absurd project: an attack on the Left based on their rejection of a disastrous war.


So, is there anything good or promising about the Left? Not much. Cohen’s OK with some environmental campaigning, even if he is dismissive of Green parties’ supposedly utopian fantasies (see p 294). The campaign for civil liberties could be good, but is of course “compromised by the refusal of many to stand up for the civil liberties of those who are oppressed by the various anti-Western tyrannies and terrorist movements.” (p 356) Some sort of nationalisation in unspecified “poor world” countries “may be for the better” (p 357) but might be spoiled by corruption.

After that, he’s “struggling”. In fact, the only glimmer on the horizon is the Euston Manifesto. The need for Professor Norman Geras’s bizarrely self-important tract is in Cohen’s world “a symbol of the dismal state of liberal life”. Cohen feels the same way about his book. I would agree, if I thought the Left were hanging by the thread of what they have to say. A political movement depending for its survival on the maundering effusions of a retired “professor of government” and the hallucinatory mudslinging of Cohen would obviously be doomed.

Fortunately, things aren’t like that. Although Cohen complains that the anti-capitalists lack a political programme (p 118-119), he never presents one himself. What little he says about economics is confined to asserting the victory of Thatcherite capitalism. The Euston Manifesto manages only platitudes on Make Poverty History. As far as they have anything to say on policy, the manifesto and What’s Left? are essentially Blairite. So one can discard immediately Cohen’s wails about the “stifling conformity of respectable liberal opinion” (p 182) shutting out his ideas. They are promoted by the nominally left-wing government in power.

Cohen’s book is fairly obviously not about the Left, but about Cohen and his clique of progressive bombardiers. It is ultimately directed at salvaging various “decent Left” reputations from the damage of the Iraq War, by blowing out smoke and crying foul about other people’s bad faith. For Cohen, the crime of the anti-war Left was not dallying with reactionary Muslims, or their tenuous association with post-modern gibberish, or the countless other accusations scribbled on the charge sheet, but being right about the war. If he illustrates any problem of the Left, it is that it gives people like Cohen such an easy ride.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Blair's Poodle

I wrote this last year, but didn’t post it, mainly because I felt there was too much Kamm-watching on here. I still think there is, but since then he has yet again repeated the point it deals with, and amazingly there are people out there who apparently want to read more about The Times’s foremost foreign policy poseur, so perhaps it’s worth posting.

It concerns Blair’s April 1999 speech to the Chicago Economic Club. Kamm likes mentioning this. It means he can hymn Blair’s foreign policy as a liberal interventionist departure from the realist consensus, and that means he can talk of “conservative pessimism” or “amoral quietism”. These favourite terms refer to the dark days of the non-interventionist Major government, before Blair’s progressive optimism and moral activism transformed Iraq into a killing ground for hundreds of thousands of its civilians. Via these means, Blair’s entanglement with a reactionary fundamentalist’s invasion is painted as left-wing moral action, dictated by conscience. It must be left-wing because – we’re supposed to believe – John Major wouldn’t have done it.

Unfortunately there are some who still cleave to the preposterous idea that Blair simply rolled over; possibly they were misled by, for instance, Blair’s chief of staff instructing his Washington ambassador to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there”. In this case Kamm has an ace to play. Tony Blair couldn’t possibly have been bounced into supporting the Iraq War because he was already wedded to his longstanding Chicago doctrine, “a distinctive approach to foreign policy that derives from the PM's own philosophy and ideals”.

In one of his recent sabbatical-busting posts, Kamm made the point once more:

“I referred here to Blair's 1999 Chicago speech, which explicitly referred to the urgency of countering Saddam, at a time when George W. Bush was a Governor of Texas of isolationist views. Blair is no poodle of the US administration.”

Quite why he finds this argument so convincing is not clear. It is true that Blair referred to Saddam Hussein in that speech, but that does not mean he was advocating an invasion. The Iraq reference was confined to these sentences:

“Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men - Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Both have been prepared to wage vicious campaigns against sections of their own community. As a result of these destructive policies both have brought calamity on their own peoples. Instead of enjoying its oil wealth Iraq has been reduced to poverty, with political life stultified through fear.”

Given that this speech was delivered four months after Operation Desert Fox, where Blair joined Clinton in bombing Iraq, it is plainly a retrospective justification for that action. There is no mention of further military action, let alone of invading Iraq. To take the above comments as proving Blair’s independent intent to invade is in itself a bizarre extrapolation.

Even weirder is Kamm’s repeated reference to Blair delivering his speech when, in one formulation, “George W. Bush was a Governor of Texas of isolationist views”. Nobody ever suggested Blair had some kind of fawning personal relationship with Bush before 2000; back then Blair was too busy obeying William J. Clinton, a President of the United States of interventionist views. Any poodling would self-evidently be towards the office, not the man. To think otherwise would be, at the least, to “misunderstand both British foreign policy and the transatlantic relationship.” (It might be worth remembering, in all this, that this quotation comes from a piece pompously titled “The PM and Atlanticism”. “Transatlantic” is one of Kamm’s special words, apparently used to connote ocean-straddling political nous.)

But we need not confine ourselves to a single speech when examining claims of autonomous warmongering. Well after he had espoused his liberal interventionist “philosophy and ideals”, Blair told Tam Dalyell in a written Commons answer that “[w]e believe that the sanctions regime has effectively contained Saddam Hussein in the last 10 years. During this time he has not attacked his neighbours, nor used chemical weapons against his own people.” He said this in November 2000, so it is hard to see how anything before this point can be used to prove his desire to end sanctions and invade. Whatever “urgency” Kamm detected in 1999 had evidently gone by 2000, only to mysteriously reemerge once Bush was in power and pushing for new military action. Yet according to Kamm, it was Blair’s high-minded principle that drove him to invade.

This is just one example, but it illustrates the desperation of Kamm’s argument. He wants to say that New Labour radically differs from the Conservatives, and that Tony Blair is an independent moral agent, driven forward by his enlightened beliefs. That this is the best he can produce surely shows that Kamm is incompetent or wrong or both in pressing this view. As things stand I’d bet on the last.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sabbatical Perils

As people might have noticed, there hasn't been anything new on here for some time. Let me take this opportunity then, to retrospectively declare that period an almost Kamm-style sabbatical. Almost, because unlike the great man's it actually was period of leave. I do this in the full knowledge that
[t]here's always a slight danger in taking a short break from polemic, lest it be interpreted as a desire to evade discussion rather than defer it.
Thoughtful words from a man who never evades discussion.

I do plan to return to posting soon. If anyone has emailed me over the past months I've quite possibly lost your email, since Hotmail disabled and emptied the account. Please send it again if you can.